Sucking up gold


Gold has hit $1500 an ounce -- and that's got would-be miners casting a covetous eye at Western streams and rivers. The Gold Rush may have ended more than a century ago, but there's still gold to be gleaned, if you've got a pickup, a wetsuit or waders, and a suction dredge  (see our 2006 story on hobby gold mining).

suction dredge

Suction dredge equipment in a stream.

Now California is trying to come up with rules to protect aquatic life while still allowing hobby miners to pan for gold. The Golden State has banned that activity since 2009, after the Karuk Tribe filed a lawsuit claiming that suction mining was harming coho salmon and other species. The Sacramento Bee reports:

Dredge mining, as a rule, includes a floating mechanism with an attached tube that functions something like a vacuum cleaner.

A miner, often in a wetsuit underwater, feeds the tube with stream-bottom gravels, which are sucked up and run through a sluice that separates out heavier material – gold, if the miner is fortunate.  ...

Environmentalists and fishing groups are concerned about what disturbing streambeds does to fish – especially in sensitive spawning seasons or in prime spawning areas.

Mining advocates are skeptical."Who kills fish? Fishermen," said Ray Nutting, a fisherman himself and supervisor in El Dorado County, one of the most popular counties for California dredge miners.

Suction dredging also can dislodge heavy metals, such as mercury, from streambeds. Hobby miners claim they're doing rivers a service by processing gravel and removing mercury particles;  the U.S. Geological Survey says the disturbance actually stirs up fine particles of mercury which then get converted into highly toxic methylmercury and enter the food chain.

In August, Oregon toughened its permitting for hobby miners, but the state still basically relies on self-enforcement. Suction dredging has been a particular problem on the Chetco River -- Congress is now considering a bill that would designate more of the river as better protect parts of the river designated as Wild and Scenic, prevent new suction-dredge mining claims and increase scrutiny of existing claims. California's final dredging rules are expected this fall.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

Barbara Ullian
Barbara Ullian Subscriber
Apr 27, 2011 10:35 PM
Hi Jodi - A slight correction on your last paragraph. The intent of the legislation that was just re-introduced in Congress for the Chetco River is to provide greater protection for 17 miles of it that Congress had already designated Wild and Scenic in 1988.

In 2008, a company submitted a series of proposals to mine almost half the length of this world class salmon and steelhead stream. Part of the mining is proposed in the part of the Chetco that's in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The Wilderness segment was withdrawn from the 1872 Mining Law in 1984 but there were existing mining claims and that's another whole issue.

The legislation now before Congress would formally withdraw the rest of the Wild and Scenic Chetco (outside the Wilderness) from the 1872 Mining Law and upgrade the protective classification on two miles. American Rivers named the Chetco one of America's most endangered rivers in 2010 because of the mining proposals.

The Chetco is one of those rare West Coast big fish rivers—free flowing from its headwaters to the Pacific. This season salmon were averaging 30 pounds with more than a few 40 pounders. Most of the Chetco's salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout are native, naturally reproducing populations.

For more information on the ongoing struggle to protect this very special river go to - Thank you.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Apr 28, 2011 07:48 AM
Thanks, Barbara, I noted that correction. Cheers, Stephanie Ogburn, online editor.